Columbus Board Prepares To Throw In The Towel

According to a Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) press statement dated 5/8/08, the board of directors has cancelled both of the organization’s summer concert series, which have been a part of Columbus summers for more than 25 years. Furthermore, the statement asserts that "due to uncertainties surrounding the 2008-2009 season" the organization is deliberately not selling subscription or single tickets until after they reach an agreement with musicians on a new collective bargaining agreement. Does anyone else smell a self-fulfilling prophecy blowing in the wind…

If the CSO board were sincerely concerned about their ability to
deliver a 2008/09 season based on the outcome of ongoing collective
bargaining negotiations, then they could simply place subscription
ticket sales in escrow and return any payments if needed. Consequently,
refusing to sell 2008/09 subscriptions is nothing more than a
negotiating tactic that is not only short-sighted but places the
Columbus patrons in a position of becoming "collateral damage."
Furthermore, this tactic all but ensures a sizeable reduction in
subscription income by missing out on potentially all of the peak
subscription selling season.

The statement’s penultimate paragraph states "The CSO remains
prepared to continue discussions with the musicians’ union at anytime
for the purpose of trying to secure the long term future of our
community’s symphony orchestra." Unfortunately, when asked if the CSO
board is willing to meet with the musicians to discuss alternative
proposals outside of the financial parameters presented in their
proposed financial plan or to enter into mediation and/or binding
arbitration, CSO Executive Director Tony Beadle said no, they are not.

It is important to remember that the board’s previous "last,
best, and final" negotiation offer, which was based entirely on
financial terms they currently insist on as a prerequisite for
negotiating, was unanimously rejected by the musicians on April 24,
2008. As such, if the CSO board is willing to bargain in good faith, it
would be prudent to indicate some degree of willingness to negotiate
beyond their previous self imposed limits, especially given that the
musician’s initial offer provided approximately $500,000 reduction in
expenses for next season. At this point, it increasingly looks as if
the CSO board is deliberately maneuvering the organization into
shutting down.

In brighter negotiation related news, the musicians of the
Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra announced that they will perform a
benefit concert for the Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church, which burnt
down the morning after the musicians performed a benefit concert for
their Health and Welfare fund during their multi week lockout at the
end of 2007. Details are as follows:

Symphony Musicians to Carry Out Wish for Benefit to Rebuild Church

past December, the then-locked-out musicians of the Jacksonville
Symphony Orchestra performed at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church to
benefit their Health and Welfare Fund. By the next morning, the church
sanctuary they had just performed in was gone, lost in a fire.

The musicians went on to ratify a contract in January. One
element of the contract was an agreement, at the musicians’ request, to
hold a fundraising event to help rebuild the portion of the church that
was destroyed. Kevin Casseday, Chair of the Jacksonville Symphony
Players’ Association, shared: "This is a way of repaying our debt of
gratitude to the Church. We want to help them out in their time of
need, just as they helped us four months ago when we were in need. We
are also hopeful that the JSO staff will continue to offer their full
support and cooperation for this worthy event; to the extent that they
do so, this event will have the added benefit of further healing the
wounds from the lockout."

Event:  Benefit Concert for Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church
Performers: Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Vernon Humbert
Date: Saturday, May 10, 2008
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Location:  Jacoby Hall, Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts
For additional details, please visit

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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6 thoughts on “Columbus Board Prepares To Throw In The Towel”

  1. You know, maybe I’m a bit more cynical and to the point than most but I’ve got to say my peace!

    Do musicians and organizations alike not realize what a horribly brutal impact things like this cause to the longevity of the organization? I know everybody needs more money, better insurance, better benefits, blah, blah, blah… but seriously in a business where it is SO hard to cultivate a decent and LONG-term relationship with a patron canceling, postponing and ultimately sitting around waiting can be a kiss of death.

    While it’s a million to billion dollar industry, let’s take a look at the last major MLB strike in the late 90s. While players/umps/union/owners were in good reason to “hold out,” look at the overall decline the league has received as a whole – attendance numbers and therefore revenue numbers are down. I was a horribly dedicated Orioles fans and went to MANY games each season in Camden Yards. Since that strike, I haven’t been back and I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a game. The break in that one season got me interested in other things and I simply moved on. Maybe I wasn’t a horribly die-hard sports fans, but in truth it’s an intense series of games, crowd momentum, and player interaction fed by a consistent a season of play that makes up a large grouping of fans for any team. Take that away for an extended period of time and people will (as proven) drop off.

    How would it not be different in the music industry? As a symphony orchestra, do an organization not compete with the opera or the ballet or, even for some, a chamber orchestra? The truth is when people have grown accustom to something and you take it away, they will find a new constant that they enjoy to fill their time. And in this industry if say 10-20% of your people do not return, are you not seriously hurting?

    Good stuff Andi, I agree that the dynamic negative impact from their decision to suspend ticket sales will hurt the organization in numerous ways. What is more puzzling, and something I didn’t mention in the article, is that the board implemented the no-subscription sales policy months before negotiations started. To me, this is just another indication that they had no sincere intention to implement 2008/09 season. Add to that the players proposed a significant reduction in pay and benefits as their initial offer and I think it should make more than a few Columbus Patrons and donors scratch their head. ~ Drew McManus

  2. Drew,the Columbus Symphony, as you know has been in serious managerial disarray for at least the last 15 years. This lastest decision on the part of the CSO board is perhaps, the proverbial nail in the coffin.
    All this in Columbus, a major urban center in North Eastern Ohio with a major university and a vibrant and diverse arts scene.
    I think it is very clear that the board had no intention of bargaining in good faith and they intended all along to pull the plug on this long struggling institution.
    This is a failure of leadership and profound lack of understanding of what the role of an orchestra is and a vision for what it could be in a community like Columbus.
    Much like the frightened shareholders of Frank Capra’s fictional Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, the musicians need to stick together and resist the easy way out. Remember:Potter wasn’t selling!Potter was buying and exploiting the “crisis” to line his own pockets and consolidate his holdings.
    Shame on the Henry F. Potters on the CSO board. They fail to realize that an orchestra the caliber of the CSO is so much more than a collection of highly skilled musicians.
    Its worth and impact goes far beyond pie charts and profit and loss statements.It brings beauty and joy to thousands, young and old in every part of its community. Its members are providing acsess to great music and music instruction in every corner of Columbus, in churchs, schools,commnunity centers and nursing homes.
    If the CSO dies,a beautiful and vibrant part of Columbus dies with it.
    That makes me truly sad.
    To paraphrase George Bailey speaking about his father:
    “Musicians were human beings to him but you (the CSO board)…they’re cattle. Well in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.”
    I’m with George.

  3. Once again, trying to stay in the middle without being perceived as siding with orchestra or management, the CSO Board is making it real difficult for me.

    I am not sure that Andi’s analogy was a great one. Let’s face it, the Orioles have been bad for way too long. I remember dreading the day when the Red Sox had to face the Orioles. Now, Camden Yards is nothing but Red Sox Nation when we are in town. So let’s use another analogy. The TV strike from this past winter. How many people found out there were other things to do besides watch their favorite shows that were in reruns? Has everyone returned to watching their shows which seem to have some bizarre writing taking place? The CSO Board better take heed on this one. The orchestra looks as if it is being put to death so that another orchestra can be built in a year or two. That audience will have died and will not be back.

    How do I know? The orchestra I worked for died 5 years ago TODAY. Now you can’t say my orchestra and the CSO have the same issues because they don’t with the exception of bad Board practices over a 13 year period or so that our last Board couldn’t turn around. Still, no full time orchestra has replaced the orchestra that died, because the audience apparently doesn’t demand it. I can only see the same thing happening in Columbus and I am so sorry.

    Doug Whitaker
    Technical Director/Stage Manager
    Florida Philharmonic Orchestra (died May 9, 2003)

    Well, I think everyone can likely agree that a professional orchestra is a Fragile Powerhouse: it takes time to build, considerable resources to maintain, but can be shattered in a fraction with one wrong misstep. ~ Drew McManus

  4. As one who watched the Florida Phil situation from the outside and experienced the Honolulu lockout of ’93-’95 firsthand, the events in Columbus have a chillingly familiar look to them.

    In one case a board determined that the community need could be filled through outsourcing via visiting orchestra “residencies”. The other case a board determined that a financial issue could be solved by shutting down and “retooling”.

    Both cases spawned a situation that is decidedly less desirable than the original “problem”. In one, we find a nearly vacant dedicated symphony hall that is bleeding money. This is compounded by the fact that the “residencies” have a price tag for a few weeks that is nearly equal to the size of the total annual budget of the former resident ensemble. The other situation has ended with the “resurrected” ensemble posting a decade long series of deficits which have been four to five times the size of the financial shortfalls that caused the board to opt for the lockout solution back in ’93.

    It is a pity that some managers and boards aren’t better students of history.

  5. I agree with Andi’s premise that cancellations can be devastating to an organization, but I have to take issue with a part of that post. The musicians in Columbus aren’t asking for a big fat raise, increased benefits, extra perks, and a green cookie on St. Patrick’s day. As you pointed out, Drew, their initial proposal included half a million dollars worth of concessions. They want to maintain the artistic integrity of their product while the board seems intent to tear it apart. To continue the baseball analogy, the board’s proposal is like putting 5 people on the field instead of 9. Who needs a shortstop anyway? Couldn’t that position be covered between the 2nd and 3rd basemen? The outfielders are superfluous. If the infielders were only faster and more agile, they could catch those deep outfield hits.

    I do smell a self-fulfilling prophecy and it is a foul stench indeed. Adaptistration has been so important in providing much needed balance to the shameful coverage of the Columbus Dispatch. Thanks for all of your work, Drew.

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